Everything you need to know about Middlesbrough's upcoming opponent Rotherham United
The remainder of the season will have taken a backseat for most Middlesbrough fans as they comprehended the rise and subsequent fall of the Super League. The richest clubs in the world devised a plan to ensure that they remain at the pinnacle of European football, in turn removing a key component to the meritocratic system. Football fans across the world voiced their opinions against the proposal and the proposal came to an abrupt end, 48 hours after its explosive arrival.
In the meantime, Middlesbrough has been preparing for their next fixture, an away trip to Rotherham United. It is now an interesting phase for Warnock’s men as the seasons target has slipped away from the side leaving them in mid-table obscurity. Yet, the remaining fixtures do have the potential to be interesting for Boro fans as Warnock revealed that he would utilise the remainder of the season to consider his squad at length, including a number of young prospects. While one of which, Sol Brynn, will not be starting in the upcoming fixture (but he has been guaranteed some game time), there are a number of other players that have been involved in first team training in recent weeks. This is an interesting proposition for Middlesbrough fans as they have an affinity towards local players, homegrown/home-developed players making it into the first team and so they will be watching any youth player that makes an appearance with great interest.
The hosts find themselves in quite a different predicament, currently sat in 22nd position, Warne is attempting to salvage their Championship place in the latter stages of the season and they do find themselves in a favourable position to do so. Rotherham United has 39 points so far this season with 3 games in hand on 21st placed Derby County. The Rams, for their part, are trying to maintain Championship status too under Wayne Rooney and they have built a 4 point gap between themselves and the relegation zone and they will be hoping that it is enough to keep them in the league. Meanwhile Rotherham United will be hoping to maximise their 3 games in hand in order to surpass the Rams to secure their own safety. It is tight at the bottom of the division and it poses to be an interesting race as we come into the final weeks of the season.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
Season So Far:
The travelling side may be going into their 43rd round of fixtures but it is just the 40th game for Rotherham following a season disrupted by Covid infections. This has compacted the sides end to the season, playing two games a week when most sides are set to play just the once, but it poses to give Rotherham a unique position in the race for Championship survival. The Millers know how many point they need to surpass their closest rivals in order to secure their Championship future in the short term, now the question is whether they will be able to find those points.
The most prolific side in the bottom four sides and the second most prolific in the bottom 7, Rotherham United are one of the few sides at the bottom of the league that have consistently found the back of the net. The sides top goalscorer, Michael Smith, has scored more goals than Middlesbrough’s top goalscorer and his 10 goals so far this season show that he is a reliable goal-getter, particularly in a side in the lower echelons of the league, which may prove to be key in their claim for survival.
While they have certainly conceded more goals than they have scored, with a -13 goal difference, the sides defensive record hasn’t been too bad. The second fewest goals conceded in the bottom four and the third fewest in the bottom 7, the side has managed to be relatively strong defensively. So it should come as little surprise that the Millers current goal difference, -13, is the best in the bottom seven. This indicates that Rotherham United has struggled to get the ‘rub of the green’ in some fixtures, losing by a tight margin; but this is not the full story as these statistics don’t take into consideration the games that Rotherham United have left and so a different picture may be painted by the time the Millers catch up with the rest of the league.
Form: L D W L L
Rotherham United has had patchy form in recent weeks as they earned four points in the middle of four defeats, as such the Millers have had a return of 0.8 points per game so far this season, a minor drop on their season average of 0.975. These fixtures, a loss against lowly Wycombe Wanderers, a draw against struggling Huddersfield Town, a win against an in form QPR and two defeats against Birmingham City and Coventry City, two sides in the bottom half of the table, begins to highlight a pattern in the sides that they succeed and fail against. Those sides in and around the Millers, the ‘six-pointers’ are the games that they have struggled with, while the matches against sides higher in the league, such as QPR, has seen them come out as victors. This is a bad sign for Middlesbrough, as their position, in mid-table, poses as the ideal opposition for Rotherham United to gain points from. Yet there is more to the pattern of these results.
This return of 0.8 points per game over the last 5 matches has been heavily reliant on a single success, the victory over QPR, as without this contribution, the Millers would have averaged 0.2 points per game. This pattern is also seen in other perimeters of the sides form, as all of Rotherham’s three goals over this period came during the win against QPR. While it is impressive that they managed to score a flurry of goals against a side that has been doing well during the second half of the season, the Rotherham hierarchy will be concerned about the general lack of goals in recent weeks as it may prove to be a final stumbling block in their chase for survival. They have also struggled for clean sheets over this period as Rotherham have conceded 6 goals across 4 of the 5 latest fixtures, only keeping a clean sheet in a draw against Huddersfield Town. However the spread of these goals, excluding the 3-0 defeat at the hands of Wycombe Wanderers, supports the thesis that they have been losing games by a close margin (1-0 vs Coventry City and 1-0 vs Birmingham City). If they can push these tight margins in their favour then they may well be successful.
Top Goalscorer: Michael Smith (10)
Most Assists: Daniel Barlaser, Wes Harding (4)
Most Yellow Cards: Michael Ihiekwe (11)
Most Red Cards: Angus MacDonald, Michael Smith, Mickel Miller, Richard Wood (1)
One To Watch: Matt Crooks
This may surprise many Middlesbrough fans but Lewis Wing would have been nominated as Riverside Observers ‘One To Watch’ had he been eligible to play against his parent club. The 25 year old has been nothing short of phenomenal since his arrival at New York Stadium, quickly becoming an integral part of the side, pulling the strings in midfield regardless of where he picks up the ball. Paul Warne has also put the Newton Aycliffe born midfielder on set pieces and he has proven to be a consistent danger from these situations. It would be unfair to dismiss Lewis Wing’s future at the club as he has shown that he is a talented player at this level and certainly deserves to be given the opportunity to challenge for a place in the side. But since he is not available for his loan side, Matt Crooks, a devious, intelligent and creative player has been nominated as the one to watch for Middlesbrough fans.
The 27 year old has had something of a journeyman career, born in Huddersfield, he would start his youth career at Manchester United before he moved to his home town side, Huddersfield Town to play for the Under-18s. He failed to make the cut at Huddersfield Town despite spending 5 years of his career tied to the Terriers he would make just 1 first team appearance. Instead the youngster would spend his time at the club on loan at sides cross the football pyramid.
His first loan, to Halifax Town, saw him make just 10 appearances contributing a single goal as he struggled to make the impact that he would have hoped to have had. He continued to struggle to make an impact during his next two loan moves too. The fellow BBC Tees commentated side, Hartlepool Town, were unconvinced by his performances during a stint that saw him play just 175 minutes across 3 games, getting a yellow card and little else for his troubles.
Then Crooks began to find his footing in professional football. A loan move to Accrington Stanley was made permanent on 24th February 2015, following the expiry of his contract with Huddersfield Town. The ‘Owd Reds had taken to the player during his loan stint and he would go on to be a key player for the side over the next year and a half. Crooks played 4,253 minutes with the loan and permanent move combined, equating to an average of 80 minutes per appearance, the player was able to rebuild his reputation at the club with his 11 goal involvements during this period. His success at Accrington Stanley meant that he garnered interest from one of Scotland’s best clubs historically.
Rangers were impressed by his performances for Accrington Stanley as he contributed to a goal every 386 minutes and they didn’t hesitate to swoop him up once the contract had expired. He was valued at just £90,000 when he signed on the dotted line for Rangers but he would fall into old habits during his time in Scotland, making just 3 first team appearances for his new side, averaging 33 minutes per appearance as he dropped to the fringes where he stayed for the remainder of his time at the club as he failed to stake a claim for a permanent place in the side despite decent performances on loan across the English football league.
The first of these opportunities to impress came in the January window following his move across the border as Rangers agreed a deal with Scunthorpe United to send him back across the border for the remainder of the season. He had a good return during his time in the industrial town, providing a goal contribution every 3 appearances. While, in minutes played, he has a return of a goal contribution every 2 games. Crook would have hoped that this impressive return during his time at Scunthorpe United may have provided him with an opportunity to break into the Rangers first team.
It was not to be though as Rangers cashed in on the players increased transfer value and footballing reputation, selling the player to Northampton Town for a comfortable £104,000 profit. He would go on to average 80 minutes an appearance during 57 games at Adebayo Akinfenwa’s former club, providing 10 goals during his stint in the side. His goal contribution every 5 games was not as impressive as his record with some of his previous clubs but it was stable and his performance, despite getting 3 red cards, were enough to garner the interest of Rotherham United who poached the player for an undisclosed fee in January 2019.
He has gone on to make more appearances at Rotherham United than any other club as he is set to eclipse the centenary by the end of the season. While this indicates that he has been a key player for the Millers, it is only further highlighted in his 72 minutes per appearance on average. He has also added 21 goals and 7 assists to the Rotherham cause since his arrival averaging a goal contribution every 243 minutes. Rotherham United will hope that he can continue and even improve on that form coming into the final weeks of the season.
Matt Crooks has provided a painful memory for Middlesbrough in the return fixture as he tormented Boro’s back line during the 3-0 defeat. So the fans will need little reminder about what he brings to the table. Middlesbrough will need to be particularly wary of how he utilises his diminutive frame and his provocateur and theatrical behaviour that can earn him free kicks. While his aerial threat, runs and constant work ethic mean that he is a serious threat without the edge to him. He is an engine in midfield and up front and Middlesbrough will need to subdue to the player if they want to win the game.
Hot Prospect: Ben Wiles
Playing for your hometown club is an aspiration shared by many young aspiring footballers and Ben Wiles is one of the few that has managed to make it. The central midfielder was born and raised in Rotherham, joining the youth academy before signing a one year professional contract in 2017 as he begun to bridge the gap between the under-18s and the first team. A month long loan shortly followed, where he made 3 appearances for Frickley Athletic. His only footballing experience away from the Millers.
Since his return to the club in September 2017, he has played 7,544 minutes across 104 appearances, which is an average of 73 minutes an appearance. While his minutes per appearance isn’t equal to a key player, they are indicative of a first team player that is valued by the club and the manager. Rightly so too as the 22 year old has repaid the managers faith with 14 goal contributions over his period in the first team. This return of a goal contribution every 539 minutes is relatively impressive for a midfielder. To put this into perspective, George Saville turned 22 during his time at Wolverhampton Wanderers, where he averaged a goal every 544 minutes. This highlights his potential for improvement too, as using Saville as a silhouette for development, indicates that he could reduce his goal contribution rate by 100 minutes as Saville now averages a goal contribution every 435 minutes. While this is a gross oversimplification of the process of development, it is intended to highlight the players potential from here on in.
Rotherham United may have a very talented player on their hands with Ben Wiles but his recent involvement in the side means that there will be questions whether he will be involved from the offset. Yet he may well be vying for Wing’s place in the side but he will have to compete with Barlaser for the start as the defensive midfielder has been on the side lines following a drop in form during the second half of the season. If he doesn’t start the game then he may well make an entrance at some point in the match and Middlesbrough will have to deal with what he offers.
Manager: Paul Warne
A manager with tonnes of playing experience, Paul Warne is current target is to maintain the sides Championship status but it is more than just a job for the Millers current boss. An affinity has grown between the former player and the club with the fans endearingly calling him ‘Warney’ as they watched his final seasons before he hung up his boots. Then he stepped into coaching, making his way up the ranks behind the scenes to take over the club.
His extensive playing career has spanned across 10 clubs, starting at Wigan Athletic and finishing at Rotherham United, he made 340 appearances during this time scoring 33 goals and creating 14 assists. His return, a goal every 640 minutes during his career was solid but not overawing for an auxiliary right winger.
He may have hung up his boots in 2012 but he wouldn’t step into the first team managerial arena until 2016, taking over Rotherham United as a caretaker manager. His form during this period was less than impressive as he struggled to put together good enough form to keep them in the Championship, averaging 0.43 points across 23 games. However Rotherham recognised that it was ultimately a tough ask to keep the side in the league, while his short stint in the top seat had positive indications for a future with him in charge. He was given a long term contract and 195 games in charge followed, including promotion back to the Championship, he has averaged 1.3 points per game and he will be hoping for a spike in form leading towards the end of the season to maintain their Championship status. If there wasn’t already enough motivation to succeed his contract ends with the conclusion of the season and so, even if he wishes to move on from Rotherham United, he will want to ensure that he is remembered for saving the club from relegation rather than him being at the helm when they are relegated. This will be particularly key as it will be these final moments of his time at Rotherham that will resonate more than his success in getting the side promoted. Alternatively, Warne may wish to stay at the club, as such he will need to keep the side up for Rotherham United’s board to be invested in the idea.
A number of Warne’s opposite numbers have complained about Rotherham’s style of play, much to the managers frustration. He rebutted Reading boss Jose Gomes’ comments claiming it was ‘offensive’ to oversimplify his sides style of football to a ‘direct’ approach and there is certainly evidence to this perspective as Rotherham United are capable of playing some good football at times. But it is important to recognise that this is something that Middlesbrough will have to deal with tonight particularly since they struggled with it in the reverse fixture.
Rotherham United’s track record over recent weeks has indicated that they are struggling to turn close fixtures into their favour and this pattern could well continue when the Boro travel to New York Stadium. But this is not going to be the easy game that some Middlesbrough fans may expect and, while Middlesbrough are the favourites, they could end up on the wrong end of this result.
Visit Rotherham United's website more details on Middlesbrough's opponents (particularly the player info pages): https://www.themillers.co.uk
https://www.themillers.co.uk/news/news-archive/p-warne-profile/ (Background on Warne at Rotherham
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/manchester-city-v-rotherham-next-up-for-pep-guardiola-its-paul-warne-his-spitting-image-q80f2xlnq (Paul Warne and Pep Guardiola: Spitting Image)
https://www.rotherhamadvertiser.co.uk/sport/view,its-offensive-and-it-does-my-nut-in-boss-paul-warne-responds-to-the-rival-b_30878.htm (Warne's reply to complaints about style of play)